William S. Mahavier


William (Bill) Mahavier 1930-2010, In Memoriam

Bill Mahavier changed my life.  I liked and could learn Mathematics before I met Bill.  But in Bill's Calculus class I learned that I could do Mathematics.  This changed my life.  Today at age 76, having retired from teaching 11 years ago, I am still doing Mathematics with 45 research publications and a research monograph in the 11 years since my 'retirement'.  The only difference is that the theorems I proved and the problems I solved in Bill's class had been proven/solved by many people during the previous century whereas the theorems I proved and the problems I solved later are permanent additions to the body of knowledge we call Mathematics.

How did Bill Mahavier teach me to do Mathematics?  I learned to do Mathematics from Bill, and later also from John Neuberger, in the same way that I learned to ride a bicycle: I simply did it.  They did not interfere with my learning process or stifle my creativity by telling me exactly what to do.  Just as my parents picked me up when I fell off the bicycle, they 'picked me up', gently but firmly,  when I 'fell off' from my proof and made sure that I clearly understood that I had 'fallen' and encouraged me to keep trying.  They never told me exactly what to do but always gave me the impression that they thought I could do it if I worked hard enough.  When I eventually succeeded with a challenging problem it was a 'Eureka' moment for me.  My Eureka moments then were essentially the same as my Eureka moments are now when I succeed in proving a challenging new theorem.

To avoid a possible  misconception  that  I was an 'elite'  student  I give  a brief  synopsis of my background.  I came  to  Chicago at  age  16 with  my parents,  an older  sister,  and grandmother.  We were refugees, citizens of no country i.e.  displaced persons - known as 'DPs'.  Both of my parents had a sixth grade education in the former Yugoslavia, my mother and sister  worked  in what  later  became known as a 'sweatshop',  my father  was a janitor and my grandmother (who was 65 when  we came to Chicago and became a US citizen at age 70) ran the household.  At age 16 I had benefited from 7 years of schooling, the first three in Yugoslavia, the other four in Austria.  From age 9 to 12 I was in concentration camp Gakowa with no opportunity to go to school.  I had no intention of going to school in the US and my parents wanted me to get a job and make money.  In Illinois education until age 17 was mandatory.  But at age 17 I was strongly motivated to continue my education and my parents, very reluctantly, agreed to let me.  So I graduated at age 20 from Chicago Vocational High School and went to Illinois Institute of Technology where I met Bill Mahavier.

Tony Zettl

Return to Mahavier Remembrances Page

Latest revision: 9 June 2011